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Honduras police accused of death squad killings

Sunday - 3/17/2013, 4:37pm  ET

In this undated image obtained by the Associated Press on Feb. 14, 2013, a man lies on the ground surrounded by unidentified people. On Jan. 9, 2013, neighbors of Kevin Said Carranza Padilla, 28, known in the gang world as "Teiker," saw police come and take him and his girlfriend without a shot. The next morning, Jan. 10, Honduras' major newspaper, El Heraldo, reported that police had captured Carranza in connection with the murder of a police commander months earlier, publishing this photo of a shirtless, tattooed young man lying on the ground, his hands behind his back, his face partially wrapped in blue duct tape, the roll still attached. Carranza's mother, Blanca Alvarado, recognized him from his tattoos. (AP Photo)

ALBERTO ARCE
Associated Press

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (AP) -- The operation was quick and under the cover of night. Armed, masked men arrived in late-model SUVs, getting through the gate into the small neighborhood of humble homes. Without firing a shot, witnesses said, they took Kevin Samraid Carranza Padilla, 28, known in the gang world as "Teiker," and his girlfriend, Cindy Yadira Garcia, 19.

The next morning, Jan. 10, Honduras' major newspaper, El Heraldo, reported that police had captured Carranza, a leader of the 18th Street gang suspected in the shooting death of a police commander months earlier. It also published a photo of a shirtless, tattooed young man lying on the ground, his hands behind his back, his face partially wrapped in blue duct tape, the roll still attached. Carranza's mother, Blanca Alvarado, recognized him from his tattoos.

The photo was distributed to media by a police prosecutor, according to three sources who didn't want to be named for security reasons. Soon after, agents at the national criminal investigations office acknowledged that there was a detention order for Carranza, and he had been brought in.

More than two months later, Carranza and Yadira have disappeared, The Associated Press has found. They are not in police custody and there are no criminal proceedings against them. Police now say they know nothing about the case.

"At this point," said Carranza's mother, "one can only imagine that they are dead."

Police have long been accused of operating more like assassins than law enforcement officers in Honduras, but few cases ever have been investigated. In the past year, police were alleged to have been involved in the deaths of a prominent Honduran radio journalist and the son of a former police chief -- but neither killing has been solved.

Despite millions of dollars in U.S. aid to Honduras aimed at professionalizing the country's police, accusations persist.

In the last three years, the AP has learned, Honduran prosecutors have received as many as 150 formal complaints about death squad-style killings in the capital of Tegucigalpa, and at least 50 more in the economic hub of San Pedro Sula. The country's National Autonomous University, citing police reports, has counted 149 civilians killed by police in the last two years, including 25 members of the 18th street gang.

Even the country's top police chief has been charged with being complicit.

In 2002, a police internal affairs report accused then police prison inspector Juan Carlos Bonilla of three extrajudicial killings -- and linked him to 11 more deaths and disappearances that it said were part of a police policy of "social cleansing." He was tried and acquitted on one of the three charges. The head of internal affairs unit who produced the report, Maria Luisa Borjas, was expelled from the department, and the rest of the cases, like most crimes in Honduras, were not investigated.

Last year, Bonilla was chosen to lead the national police force despite unanswered questions about his past. The U.S. Congress decided to withhold State Department funding to the police while they investigated the 2002 internal affairs report. Roberta Jacobson, assistant secretary of state for western hemisphere affairs, said last week that the department is constantly reviewing information about people and institutions receiving support in Honduras, and so far, the state department can and will continue funding and training the Honduran police.

All but about $11 million has since been released based on a Congressional agreement with the State Department over how counterdrug operations involving the U.S. and investigations into civilian casualties are carried out.

"It has been made clear to the State Department that no units under General Bonilla's control should receive U.S. assistance without credible information refuting the serious allegations against him," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on the State Department and Foreign Operations.

While U.S. aid is supposed to go only to vetted units, not the entire police force, Leahy said the Carranza case is still troubling. "There is a chronic pattern of human rights abuses, and impunity for those responsible," he said.

AP interviews with family, witnesses and law enforcement officials paint a picture of a case in which two people associated with gangs were taken into police custody and then never heard from again.

After witnesses told Alvarado, 50, that her son had been taken by police, she went to a series of police stations in search of him. At the National Criminal Investigations Office, she was met by 20 officers, some masked, who openly played with their guns as she asked after her son and his girlfriend.

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